News

Former Defense Department General Counsel Appointed Harvard’s Top Lawyer

News

Democracy Center Protesters Stage ‘Emergency Rally’ with Pro-Palestine Activists Amid Occupation

News

Harvard Violated Contract With HGSU in Excluding Some Grad Students, Arbitrator Rules

News

House Committee on China to Probe Harvard’s Handling of Anti-CCP Protest at HKS

News

Harvard Republican Club Endorses Donald Trump in 2024 Presidential Election

Black Studies Department Reflects a Decade of Change

By Lee A. Daniels

To the Harvard community, a community that takes pride in its ability to rationally discuss conflicting points of view, the 1968-69 academic year was traumatic. The radical student activism which culminated in the April strike produced shock waves that penetrated every level of the University. Harvard's black students, through the Association of African and Afro-American Students (AAAAS), joined with the larger student body in demanding restructuring and a general educational reform of the University. But the vital energy of AAAAS was focused on a more specific goal: a Department of Afro-American Studies.

Although the demand for Black Studies programs, at Harvard as elsewhere, surfaced only as black student protest escalated during the later years of the 1960's, that demand resulted from black student activism which spanned the entire decade. Substantive changes occurred in the tenor and direction of that activism. Because the concept of Black Studies is rooted in the racial activism of the 1960's, one cannot fully understand its meaning-nor its potential impact-without understanding the situation that produced it.

I.

In February of 1960 four students from a Negro college in North Carolina sat-in at a local restaurant to protest its policy of racial discrimination. Their act of protest spread first to other Negro colleges, and then grew rapidly into a movement as black college students became during the next four years the vanguard of an intensive struggle for civil rights in the South.

Several elements characterized black student activism during this period, distinguishing it from the pattern that was to later develop. Its target, broadly speaking, was the mores of Southern society; the Establishment, both in the university, and in the federal government, was considered an ally, not an enemy. There was none of the hostility toward it that became so widespread after 1965. The Movement's nonviolent style influenced by the Christian pacifism of Martin Luther King won the admiration of liberal whites who were readily welcomed into it. And finally it had not yet linked itself with other radical movements aimed at American foreign policy, urban problems, or campus reform.

This pattern began to change in 1964 when it became clear that the accepted style of racial activism had produced little substantive progress.

The ghetto revolts which began in the summer of 1965 and the ensuing articulation of black nationalist sentiment-by former civil rights activists in many instances-both revealed and spurred the shift in the Movement to a more militant position. Their faith in the democratic process worn away by the slow process of change, black people soon discovered that anger and threats of violence could produce more results than soft-spoken appeals to white conscience. It was an important lesson, one which black students on white college campuses effectively utilized.

Prior to 1965 black students at these colleges were typically from the black middle class. Generally speaking they saw no conflict between themselves and the institutions in which they were enrolled or with the aspirations of the other (white) students. Cushioned from the worst excesses of racism, they adopted and even embellished upon the Protestant ethic.

This group attitude had changed consider ably by the fall of 1967. The new pulse and direction of the Black Movement had furnished the impetus for the formation of black student groups on white campuses, and the concurrent growth of militant student groups at Negro colleges. Black students, now highly politicized, readily accepted the efficacy of radical action as a means of winning their demands.

By 1965 the intensive efforts of white colleges, particularly those in the Far West and the Northeast, to recruit more blacks began to pay off-for example, the number of black students attending New England colleges more than doubled between 1966 and 1968.

Harvard admitted 35 black students into the Class of 1969, by far the largest black class in the school's history. Suddenly, the black student at Harvard became very visible. Unfortunately, like most other institutions in the country, the University mistook changes in appearance for changes in substance. The new group was thought of as blacks at Harvard had always been: merely Harvard students who happened to be black.

A substantial number of this new "liberated" black class were from urban ghettos, and had participated in civil rights activities. Many were, if not members, at least fellow travelers of SNCC. They did not consider themselves divorced by virtue of location from the problems of Black America.

"The ghetto is wherever I am," one black freshman succinctly remarked at the time.

"We are individuals on the white campus," another noted, "but just as importantly, we are black individuals on the white campus. The facts of color and race don't change in college."

Almost immediately these students began raising questions which dismayed those who had expected business to continue as usual, questions that eventually were transformed into demands for a department of Afro-American Studies.

From is inception in 1963, AAAAS had sought the addition of more courses exploring the facets of the Black experience to the university curriculum. But the administration, stating that the academic merit of such courses was questionable, turned a deaf ear to the organization. As time passed, their demands changed from that of merely adding a few courses to that of establishing an entire department.

By the fall of 1967, then, as AAAAS became more activist-oriented, the establishment of an Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard became its primary political objective.

For a time AAAAS had little success in penetrating the University's wall of indifference. The aftermath of Martin Luther King's murder in April of 1968 brought, finally, a positive response from the University.

A nine-member Faculty committee, chaired by Economics professor Henry Rosovsky, was commissioned to investigate establishing some form of Black Studies program at the University. The Ad Hoc Committee of Black Students, the negotiating arm of AAAAS, worked closely with the Faculty group during the rest of the spring and the following fall. In January of 1969, after eight months of exhaustive research, the Rosovsky Committee issued its long awaited report.

Foremost among its recommendations-which included the creation of a black students' cultural center, more courses in African Studies, and an increased enrollment of blacks in the University's graduate schools-was that of the "development of undergraduate and graduate degree programs in Afro-American Studies." (The wording of this specific recommendation is important to note. By a prior agreement between the Ad Hoc Committee of Black Students and the Faculty Committee, the document was purposely ambiguous about what form-whether departmental or interdisciplinary-Afro-American Studies at Harvard was to assume in order to make its passage before the Faculty smoother. But the Ad Hoc Committee had made it clear to the Rosovsky Committee that AAAAS would not be satisfied with anything but a department of Afro-American Studies.)

The report was overwhelmingly ratified by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in February. At the time it appeared that Afro-American Studies had come to Harvard peacefully.

Two months later, however, in the midst of the general student strike, the Rosovsky Report became-the focal point of a bitter confrontation between the administration and AAAAS.

On April 7 (1969) the Standing Faculty Committee, which had been set up to supervise the staffing of the program, issued to potential concentrators a communique which outlined the structure and concentration requirements for Afro-American Studies.

According to the Committee's plan Afro-American Studies would be an interdisciplinary field like Social Sciences. Students were actually to do most of their work in an "allied field" such as Government, or History, or Social Relations. The only courses offered in Afro-American Studies itself were to be tutorials, and the material in them would be under external control. Finally, students concentrating in Afro-American Studies would be required to take both the tutorials and general examinations of the Allied Field as well as those of the program.

Black students were incensed. AAAAS charged that the program of the Standing Faculty Committee was "completely inadequate," and "a betrayal of the spirit of the Rosovsky Report and of the trust of black students."

AAAAS also charged the Standing Committee with violating the terms of the Rosovsky Report, under which it was empowered only to select a chairman for the new department.

The Standing Faculty Committee at first maintained that its plan was satisfactory, then modified that plan in an attempt to placate AAAAS. It didn't work. AAAAS drew up its own proposal for the temporary structure of the department. The black students' proposal called for a departmental governing board consisting of Faculty members of the department and four students-two selected by and from concentrators, and two selected by AAAAS. This board, the Afro-American Studies Executive Committee, under the direction of the department chairman, would supervise the program until May of 1970.

The situation then seemingly reached an impasse. Tension mounted, and the threat of disruptive action by AAAAS appeared imminent. At a critical juncture, however, the Faculty approved the AAAAS plan, and the tension subsided.

II.

The purpose of the Afro-American Studies Department is to give its students (which include 22 concentrators-five of whom are white-and approximately 160 other students) a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics of the black experience. Sixteen courses are offered; no single area of study is emphasized at the expense of another.

Students can choose AAS 13: Africa in World Politics, which examines the emergence of African states as independent actors in international politics; or AAS 14: Caribbean Social Structure: The Black Experience in the West Indies and Latin America, which examines the effects of slavery on contemporary social and cultural patterns among blacks of these regions. Students can choose AAS 31: History of African Art, which examines primarily the geographical, anthropological, and historical background of African art south of the Sahara; or AAS 33: Afro-American Letters and Thought 1914-32, which examines black intellectualism of this period.

In addition, eleven related courses were given this past year in eight other departments.

The tremendous demand for Black Studies created a feverish, and sometimes vicious, competition for black faculty members. Because Harvard's program had begun looking for instructors late in the spring of 1969 there was some concern that it might not get top-quality personnel.

Dr. Ewart Guinier became chairman of the department. The distinguished-looking Guinier has a rich background in both academic and community-action experience. Forced to leave Harvard by the Depression, he finished his undergraduate work at CCNY, then gained a law degree from NYU. Long active in welfare organizations and community agencies in New York City, Guinier was the assistant director of Columbia University's Urban Center before coming to Harvard.

That Azinna Nwafor '62 should be the Head Tutor of the department is only fitting. The 28-year-old Ph.D. (in political science from the University of Michigan) was one of the founders of AAAAS. Nwafor's area of interest is the role of African states in international affairs.

The two other term appointees of the department exhibit impressive credentials, too. Dr. Ephraim Isaacs, Ph. D. '69, is a former director of the National Literacy Campaign in Ethiopia. Dr. Orlando Patterson is a distinguished scholar, novelist, and social critic, now teaching AAS 14 and AAS 30: African and West Indian Literature.

The Afro-American Studies Executive Committee supervises the operation of the entire department. Thus, student involvement is built into the department at every level: in budgetary details, operational procedures, and academic matters.

Such unprecedented student involvement did not result by chance: six students-three chosen by AAAAS, and three by and from concentrators-were voting members of the faculty committee which supervised the initial stages of the program's development.

As expected of any new-born academic entity, the fledgling department has encountered problems. "The major problem has been coordinating courses to establish coherence within the program," Guinier said. "Because the department is so young, tremendous gaps exist in theprogram in terms of what we should be offering."

Plans are proceeding so rapidly that he "gaps" in the program should be ?? ?? ?? ?? the next four years. At ?? ?? ?? courses are in the offing for next year. Future plans also include a graduate program, a departmental library, and a research institute.

III.

?? ?? ?? for Afro-American ?? ?? ?? a ?? ?? controversy and the program has received more than its share of unfavorable criticism since last September. Much of this criticism is rearguard action, and not worthy of reply. There is one charge levelled against ?? ?? Studies, however, that must be answered.

Soon after students began demand-?? Black Studies programs, ?? ?? ?? ?? that a degree in Afro-American Studies has no worth, that it could serve no "function" in society. These critics said that black students ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? American higher education in its entirety. That issue is the conflict between the traditional ideal of the university as an island of disinterested scholarship, a community of scholars devoted solely to the search for Truth, and the purpose of the modern American university, the brain trust of the government and incubator for the Establishment.

Whether the former ideal was ever realized by any American university is doubtful, but it would be foolish to say that the college experience does ?? afford the individual a means of finding and developing his true self. The pursuit of knowledge can be for a certain individual a search for the truth of human experience as it pertains to himself. The acquisition of knowledge, no matter how trivial or "??-functional" it may appear, influences in varied and often subtle ways the development of the human personality.

Technically speaking, then, concentrating in Afro-American Studies can have the same value for one individual as concentrating in Far Eastern Studies or in Government may have for another: it can provide the individual the mental tools to come to grips with himself and with society.

But Black Studies programs also have a "functional" role in contemporary society. W. E. B. DuBois said nearly seventy years ago that the problem of the twentieth century was the ?? of the color line. That state?? ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? of the American racial dilemma. That the old approaches are not resolving problems arising out of that matrix has long been evident.

Dynamic Black Studies programs, with sincere, realistic students and Faculty, should be the fountainhead of a new social thrust toward eradicating the effects of racism in America.

Obviously, Black Studies alone is not the panacea for black problems, but it can be part of the solution. At tempting to place Black Studies outside of this political perspective is evading the issue. The primary function of Black Studies programs should be to furnish an intelligentsia able to provide leadership at various cultural and political levels in the black community.

Harvard's Afro-American Studies program has not yet reached that level. But that many students in the department consider that its goal is clear. As one student said, "We're not in this for the sake of our pride, but for the sake of our people."

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags